U.S. is prominent in UNICEF report

June 19, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

When I was a kid, we used to raise money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund dedicated to improving the health and well-being of starving children in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Better nutrition, clean water, health care, more schools -- that's why we were dispatched to collect nickels in cardboard boxes; it was for kids with bloated bellies in Somalia and Bangladesh.

Thirty-something years later, I read a report from UNICEF, titled "The Progress of Nations," and while sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia still figure prominently as Earth's hellholes for children, it's hard to miss the appearance of the United States in the 54 pages of narrative and statistics.

Who knew the world's richest, most industrialized nation would even merit a mention in a report of an organization that deals with the stark realities of widespread famine and disease in the Third World?

But UNICEF doesn't let the United States or other rich nations off the hook in its worldwide assessment of the lives of children. After all, shouldn't the richest nations provide the highest level of support for the growing minds and bodies of its children? Shouldn't the wealthiest countries provide the tightest safety net for kids who had the misfortune of being born into poverty?

Taking care of children might not be an Olympic event, but it's a significant measure of how a nation stands up in the world community -- at least as important as beach volleyball, right?

What the latest UNICEF report says about the United States is worth more than the three paragraphs it received inside The Sun last week. For some reason, this wasn't front-page news, perhaps because we know the facts already (yeah, right) or have grown sick of hearing them (the more likely case).

But in this age of the $200 million taxpayer-subsidized football stadium, the $574,000 cigar humidor (see estate auction, Jackie O, April 1996), off-the-charts Wall Street profits, wholesale job eliminations and multimillion-dollar corporate bonuses, the UNICEF report provides perspective vital to an informed citizenry.

Here are the highlights:

Among the world's 18 richest industrialized nations, American kids have the highest poverty rate. "With more than one in five of its children below the [poverty] line, the United States easily heads the child poverty league," the report says. "Only four other countries -- Australia (14 percent), Canada (14), Ireland (12) and Israel (11) -- have child poverty rates of more than 10 percent."

Which actually puts the United States in a league of its own.

All other industrialized nations do more to lift their children out of poverty than the United States does. (No gold medals here, either.)

"In 11 of the 18 countries surveyed, child poverty is at least halved by government welfare measures. Eight nations -- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland -- have succeeded in keeping child poverty rates below 5 percent."

And I'll bet those nations are actually proud of it. In the United States, we delude ourselves into thinking that our welfare system -- particularly, Aid to Families With Dependent Children -- is overly generous, and we decry it as waste. Politicians are more than willing to play that tune for us. Meanwhile, our safety nets for kids are weakest among the industrialized nations.

"Without government tax and transfers, for example, France and the U.S. would both have 25 percent of their children in poverty," the report says. "In France, government action has slashed that figure to 6.5 percent. In the U.S., government policy reduces the figure only marginally, to 21.5 percent."

So much for the hotheads out there who think we've become a socialist nation. Sleep well, boys. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer -- the way things ought to be, right? -- and the gap between those groups is wider in the United States than any place in the industrialized world.

One of the most interesting, though not surprising, findings is this one:

The 21.5 percent poverty rate for American kids is about equal to the percentage of kids growing up without a father. (Happy Father's Day!) The United States leads all industrialized nations with 21.2 percent of its children living in solo-mother families. That trend, and its attendant poverty, has been developing for three decades, and it is linked more to economic decay than to moral decline.

"Of white children born since 1980 in the U.S., about 50 percent will spend some part of their childhood in a single-parent family," the report says. "For black children the proportion is about 80 percent. The difference is mostly accounted for by the rise in the number of black children born outside of marriage. A likely explanation is that economic pressures have been borne down more heavily on African-Americans. The difference in unemployment levels between young black men and young white men was almost negligible in 1955. By 1989, it had become a gap of 15 to 25 percentage points."

The report suggests that more jobs will lead to fewer single-parent households headed by unwed mothers, which will lead to a reduction in poverty. However, that assumes such jobs will not only exist (in an age of corporate downsizing), but pay an above-poverty-level wage.

I think I'll send a donation to UNICEF.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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